Special to the Washington Post
Jimmy Carter is a Southerner who grew up witnessing Jim Crow segregation in all its forms, so when he told NBC News that he believes "an overwhelming portion" of the public animosity directed at President Barack Obama recently is "based on the fact that he is a black man," many Americans listened. But pointing at racism as the chief source of rage is a trap into which liberals have fallen too often, for reasons we'd better face quickly.
Racism is only one of many factors driving the backlash against the president in town hall meetings and in demonstrations on Capitol Hill. Obama has been right to discount it, because a white president would feel some scorching heat, too. Just hours before Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., interrupted Obama's address to a joint session of Congress with his brazen "You lie!" shout, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court welcomed arguments against restricting business-corporate funding of Hillary: The Movie - a relic of rage on the presidential primary campaign trail that presaged what Hillary Rodham Clinton would be enduring now were she, not Obama, in the White House.
But sexism isn't the main factor, either; recall the swift-boating of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during the 2004 campaign and the unending conservative rage against former President Bill Clinton. Republican House leader John Boehner got close to the truth when he told ABC News last spring that people he met at "taxpayer protests" are "scared to death ... about the future ... and the facts that the American dream may not be alive for their kids and grandkids."
Boehner lacks credible answers for these Americans, who are viscerally and legitimately afraid that they'll never again make $28 an hour, afford health insurance or own a home after losing the one they're in. It's the absence of honest answers, more than racism, that's turned out people brandishing signs that liken Obama to Hitler and demanding, with stupefying illogic, that government keep its hands off their Medicare. Are liberals going to deliver the answers the other side does not - or will they be sidetracked, yet again, by their constant preoccupation with identity politics?
Fear and rage
Fear and rage that ran far deeper than race were palpable at the 2008 Republican National Convention, where Sen. John McCain - who, to his credit, refused to trade on racism in his campaign - found himself coping anyway with a large contingent of young delegates whose repertoire of political expression consisted mainly of shouting "Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!"
No matter how subtle, subdued or dignified McCain's appeals to patriotism in his acceptance speech, the chorus grew so loud and insistent that at times it seemed an eruption of the GOP's militaristic id, and even the war-hero candidate looked annoyed.
Yet it would be a mistake to feel disdain for these guys, for their buffoonish chanting was only one side of them, and not necessarily the dominant one. They haven't curdled into fascists, as some on the left seemed to think. More likely, the thwarted decency in them is trying to find a political home, a sense of civic standing that is slipping away.
And now, such individuals are looking for someone or something to blame. With encouragement from Rush Limbaugh and some Republican leaders, they're taking the path of least resistance and blaming an easy mark - a government they can vote out of office, a leader who looks unfamiliar - rather than the immense, private bureaucracies they're beholden to, can't touch at the polls and will find even harder to resist if the John Roberts court voids restrictions on corporate "free speech" in campaigns.
Some of them listen to Limbaugh while driving anxiously from one job interview to another, and they recycle his wisdom as their own at the bar. Racism, sexism, Islam, "big government" - anything will serve, if it spares them having to face being had by the unaccountable powers and riptides that are destroying their dreams.
Wilson's "conduct was asinine, but I think it would be asinine no matter what the color of the president," said Dick Harpootlian, who, far from being Wilson's apologist, is the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Condemning racism in this context, as President Carter and many well-meaning liberals do, won't deflect the demagoguery and folly that foreclose bold new strategies in the provision and regulation of capital, health care, energy and defense.
The mistake of crying racism is especially tempting to upscale, influential liberals who, no less than protesters on the right, are ducking the true causes of dispossession, fear and rage: the premises and practices of financial capital, predatory consumer marketing and a national-security state boondoggling.
Liberals who've done well by those practices aren't always serious about redressing their inequities and disruptions. But they can't bring themselves to defend them very wholeheartedly, either. So they grasp at symbolic gestures against racism that short-circuit political currents for necessary change as surely as Rush does. Remember the moralistic passion plays over the dubious black church "arson epidemic"?
Carter is hardly wrong to condemn racism when he sees it in the protests. But to blame racism for an "overwhelming portion" of the fear and rage rising around us would be to consign legitimately frightened and angry people to demagogues and shut out real change. That would be a strategic blunder, and ultimately a moral one, too.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale University, is the author of Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York.